Dolphins in False Bay

Belugas in captivity

The Georgia Aquarium has applied to import 18 beluga whales captured off the Russian coast to their facility in the United States. Beluga, like orcas and dolphins, are huge money spinners for marine parks and aquaria, but – like other marine mammals – their lifestyle in the wild suggests that they are simply not suited to life in captivity. The Georgia Aquarium hauls out the words to the familiar song about the beluga being ambassadors for their kind, fostering love for ocean animals among the visitors who interact with them, and conducting research. They repeatedly refer to their four existing captive beluga as being “in human care” rather than “in captivity”, as if they’re unable to fend for themselves in the wild.

Wired summarises the controversy nicely. It quotes the Georgia Aquarium communications officer as saying that:

In human care in accredited scientific institutions like Georgia Aquarium, these animals receive the highest quality veterinary care, the most nutritious food and the love and dedication of animal care experts.

Scientist Hal Whitehead is quoted in the New York Times as saying

We know that they are intensely social mammals with complex and lengthy migrations, and that they use a whole bunch of different habitats in different times of the year, and that they are acoustic communicators. There is no way even the best captive situation has even the slightest approximation to that.

Tim Zimmermann has posted regularly on his blog about this subject, and reports that not all marine parks believe that beluga – in particular – are suited to life in captivity. He also points out in another post that ambassadors are not usually forced into service – so calling captive beluga “ambassadors” for their species is dishonest.

The lifespan of cetaceans in captivity is frequently subjected to hot debate, with proponents of keeping dolphins, orca and beluga in aquaria stating that captive animals live long, full, stimulating lives and casting doubt on scientific estimates of cetacean longevity in the wild. Claims that scientific research is conducted on captive cetaceans are disingenuous – there has been almost no useful scientific output from the SeaWorld orca program, and all that seems to be learned is how to care for captive animals.

My view is that, even if the animals live longer in captivity (and this is by no means certain), it is a sterile, artificial, lonely existence which deprives the animals of the social interactions and complex stimulation that they’re able to enjoy in the wild. It is uniquely arrogant of humans to assume that scheduled “interactions” with a trainer can replace living in a large, dynamic social group of other whales. The parasites and peculiar diseases and ailments (such as folded over dorsal fins on orca, infections, and tooth damage from mouthing gates to their pools) that they suffer in captivity belie the claims of captivity proponents that the animals are kept healthy and provided with the best veterinary care.

The National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA) is expected to rule on the permit application early in 2013.

The New York Times article was followed up with a blog on the subject which is also well worth reading as it adds texture to the press article by considering some of the ethical issues more closely. The key point – to my mind – is made by a Canadian beluga researcher who says that keeping belugas captive is a decision that

… doesn’t belong to scientists alone. This should be the choice of a society.

For society to be able to make choices like this one, education and critical thinking is necessary. One has to look deeper, think harder, and not accept the facile, glib explanations for why keeping large animals in captivity is not only good, but necessary.

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Lapsed mathematician, creator of order, formulator of hypotheses. Lover of the ocean, being outdoors, the bush, reading, photography, travelling (especially in Africa) and road trips.

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